History as Gestalt Perception

George Marsden’s essay “Common Sense and the Spiritual Vision of History” [History and Historical Understanding, ed. C.T. McIntire and Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1984), pp. 55-68] tries to chart a course between highly subjectivist accounts of historical knowledge such as advocated by Carl Becker [See What Is History? And What Are Historical Facts?] and really excessive claims to historical “objectivity” such as advocated by the positivist-scientific paradigm of history inherited from the 19th century. While being sympathetic to some good elements in Becker’s treatment (he says his own approach combines elements of Becker and Van Til), he nevertheless believes Becker’s treatment to be an overreaction to the excessive rationalistic confidence of the 19th century (pp. 57, 59).

Against this excessive confidence, Marsden appropriates some elements of Thomas Reid’s “common sense” philosophy. Reid, writing against the skepticism of Hume, argued that all people possessed a “common sense” that allowed them to directly access some truths about reality regardless of the limitations of reason or the presence of biasing factors. For instance, most people feel, as it were, “forced to believe in the existence of the external world, in the continuity of one’s self from one day to the next, in the connection between past and present, in the existence of other persons, in the connections between causes and effects, and (given the right conditions) in the reliability of their senses and of their reasoning” (pg. 57). Other “common sense” tools include the assumption of the basic reliability of memory, and the disposition to give the benefit of the doubt to other people’s testimony. Such beliefs are very difficult to demonstrate via logical proofs, and are usually simply taken for granted as basic, unstated preconditions of all inquiry. For Reid, these “common sense” tools were built into man by God.

Accepting Reid’s basic scheme as a corrective to the dialectic between positivism and skepticism, Marsden suggests a helpful metaphor for the tension between saying (as we must) that “we share with the race common sense abilities to know something truly of the world ‘out there,’ and saying (as we must) that “we might always be perceiving it dimly and with some distortions of cultural and personal bias.” That metaphor is of a series of lenses like those with which opthamologists test our eyes. “Each person wears a different series of lenses of biases and prejudices. Nonetheless, all normal people still read many of the same letters on the chart” (pg. 60).

Going further from Reid’s suggestions, Marsden argues that not all of our knowledge is discursive. Many things that we claim to know are intuitive, based on the mind’s ephemeral ability to “see” patterns that “often go beyond what can be accounted for by the mechanics of logical calculation” (pg. 60). To be sure, there is a subjective aspect even in this natural, common ability. Differing perceptions of Gestalt pictures prove this (The chin is the key. Is it a chin, or a nose? Do you see a young lady or an old lady? Or both?) However, even when different patterns are perceived, just as with the eye test chart, many of the same things are seen by everyone. For example, regardless of which lady one sees, everyone sees all of the lines and spaces and shadings in the gestalt picture. Though subjectivity plays a great role in our knowledge, our knowledge is not entirely subjective. We do know things about reality.

This helps us answer questions about the linkage of faith and scholarship, particularly against charges that faith commitments “distort” intellectual work from achieving that hallowed 19th century goal of “objectivity.” Faith commitments do eliminate that naive concept of “objectivity” (what the giant of the day, Leopold von Ranke described as history merely “telling what happened”), but are neither totally subjective nor totally distortive of reality. The Christian brings his spiritual commitments to his work, but these are tools that allow him to perceive patterns in the commonly-observed phenomenon. Historical evidence, for instance, “is often overwhelming, amorphous, or seemingly contradictory” (pg. 62). Like all other historians, Christians bring subjective, intuitive elements to their work. And as with all other historians, our “biblical and spiritual insights allow us to reorganize our intuitive grasp of the patterns in our experience” (pg. 63). We all still see the same “facts,” but for reasons that are outside those “facts” we see different patterns in them. The spiritual man sees things that the non-spiritual man does not.

For Christians involved in academic work, the Gestalt idea becomes particularly important not just for evaluating the differences between Christian and non-Christian scholarship, but even for evaluating the differences between types of Christian scholarship. It matters whether one follows the basic Augustinian tradition’s view of knowledge as being deeply related to one’s affections, or instead the Anglo-American fascination with Baconian inductivism and its abstract proposition-based model. Against the illusion of “objectivity” that man can make himself disappear from his own view of reality, “When we see ourselves as frail creatures in a world of great spiritual forces and causes, our loves and commitments become central to our knowing” (pg. 67).

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